The dwarves led us into one of the buildings, a tumbled down stone-walled warehouse of some sort. The hunch-backed dwarf leaned down, before a jumble of decaying sacks and crates, gave a grunt, and lifted a trapdoor up through the center of the illusion. He whispered a hard word, rapping his staff on the ground, and a pale white illumination sprang up from beneath the trapdoor. He motioned us with his strangely glowing staff, and the other dwarves stepped aside as we were ushered towards the wide hole in the floor.
The ghostly light sprang from a series of runes chiseled into the stone just above a wide, broad set of stone steps. Had I been able to stretch my arms out to either side, I could not have brushed the walls to either side with my fingertips. Unlike the steps in Byxata, each step was even, the stone smooth and reassuring beneath my boots. I had no feeling that I would stumble or lose my balance, even when I turned to glance over my shoulder at the muted chime of steel on stone. Even the mule was having an easy time of the stairs.
The stairwell curved, ever so slightly, and I judged that we made two full rotations before a glimmering of light from below began to outshine the glow of the runic lights to either side of the steps.
We emerged on a huge ledge above an cavern that dwarfed any of the great chambers we’d seen in the ancient ruins beneath the Lost Valley. As with those caverns, this one sported clouds, though these were darker, thicker, lit from below with a dull, orange-yellow light. Smoke and iron left a bitter tang on my tongue, and I was not the only one to break into a sudden fit of coughing. It wasn’t until we started down another broad set of stairs cut into the side of the great cavern that I began to grow uncomfortably warm, and then hot with each step. By the time we reached the bottom, I was drenched with sweat, my hair clinging to my face. The dwarves laughed, but the dark-bearded one freed each of us in turn so that we could shed our cloaks and wool-lined overtunics. These were bundled and tied over the back of the mule, and we resumed our march across a wide roadway paved into the floor of the cavern. Stalagmites and great columns of rock rose from either side, forming a gloomy, silent forest of stone through which we could see glimmers of lights from what looked like a township sprawled along the bowl of the cavern floor.
After Ana stumbled a second time, the dwarves finally slowed, lighting one of our lanterns.
“It does us no good to bring them all this way to have one of them break a leg or neck,” the dark-bearded dwarf grumbled, when the gray-bearded one complained. “We’re close enough to the walls that this light shouldn’t attract any unwanted attention.”
Even still, his dark eyes were intent on the deeper shadows between the pillars of stone, his hand not far from the haft of the axe at his belt.
Demarra stumbled, bumbling into me.
“Something approaches,” she whispered. “Be ready.”
The spires of stone grew closer on each side of the roadway. If they had been true trees, the branches and leaves would have twined overhead making a wooded tunnel. As it was, there was only the orange-lit gloom, just bright enough to be noticed, but not reflect any of that light below.
I glanced up again. There were points of bright orange light drifting here and there through the darkness above. There wasn’t enough breeze to carry embers from the far off mineholt.
Darkness coalesced about the many points of light, and then it dropped upon us with a clicking, hissing, chittering and flurry of hairy limbs.
Dwarven shouts were drowned under an ululating chorus of high-voices and a sharp crack-twang of loosing crossbows. The lantern was extinguished in that first few moments, and I could only hope that the rest of my companions had been knocked down by whatever it was that dropped on us from the rocky spires.
The chittering was punctuated by high-pitched barks, and the sound of heavy limbs smashing into brass-plated armor. More often than not, those sounds were accompanied by the sharp cracking of bones.
Bristly leg after bristly leg brushed by my head or dangerously close to an arm or leg. I could feel the surges of fear coursing through the bracelet — whatever these things were, they danced the same jig above Sera.
From a bit further ahead, where the dwarves had walked with the pack mule and the spellbound twins, came a piercing whistle.
The scuffling grew to a frenzy around me, and something wet and gauzy drifted past my face. I raised a hand to brush it away, and found myself dragging my chains through what felt like a blanket of the stuff. Many hands gripped my tunic and I felt myself pushed, rolled end over end through more of the fabric. It clung to my arms, shoulders, about my knees and ankles.
It was only when I felt myself hoisted by bristly arms and laid across a similarly bristly, bulbous back that I put two and two together.
I’d been wrapped up and was about to be carried away on spider-back.